Friday, January 31, 2014

Reading readers

adj. plausible - credible, believable

One of the most disliked jobs in the film and TV business is probably "the reader".

These are the people who read screenplays for their production company or studio or producer. There's a couple of reasons why companies enlist readers; it could be the volume of screenplays a company would get and/or the producer is just too lazy and finally because the producer probably can't read because they never learned how to or they have an attention-deficit problem.

Having said that, there are a lot of producers who do actually read screenplays that are submitted or passed alone from a friend or another company or a studio.

But then there's the reader; you'll notice ads in places like Mandy and producers who are "too busy". There's actually two types of readers; one type is hired by the production company and the other is freelance. 

The production company will probably pay the reader a regular salary which may amount to

maybe a few hundred dollars a week. If the reader is good, they might rise to a development executive. With that label, they get business cards and probably the same amount of money.

Freelances are often made up of writers who haven't worked for awhile or aspiring writers who hope to make friends with the production company so they can have access to the producers with their screenplays.

So what do readers do?

Naturally they read screenplays, sometimes lots of them. And they have the power to either push a writer's screenplay further or the quash it.

The funny part about this is that most readers really haven't had any kind of training except for reading comic books for maybe even a real book or two. If I sound a little rough on these people, I'll tell you why --

Because screenwriters do not like readers.

How would you like it if you were a good pie maker and made a pie to someone who knows nothing about pie-making -- and he says it's not very good.

Okay, that's a weak comparison, but it is true.

Free-lance readers get paid anywhere from $10 a screenplay up to $100 (most of them at the bottom range).

I recently had a screenplay on The Black List and while the reader gave a glowing report to the overall screenplay, they expressed some doubts about the "plausibility" of one story line.

That got me going.

The scene in mind was a doctor who just happened to be in Paris and who witnessed a man having a heart attack and assisted the man to the hospital wherein CIA agents enlisted him for a special job.

There's more to the scene that explains why but let's go with that.

When questioned why the doctor happened to be there I answered simply "because he was" and "that's part of the story". Is it likely to happen? No. But could it happen? Yes.

It's very difficult to explain why; why did Bruce Willis in Die Hard happen to encounter terrorists when he just wanted to see his wife?  What's the odds of that happening to anyone?

How about Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Why did debris cast her off the space station at that moment? Astronauts regularly go out on space walks.  Why did it happen to her?

And how about a classic; Why does Ingrid Bergman and her husband come to Casablanca to escape the Nazis when the Nazis control Casablanca?

Does that make sense?

Is it plausible? I think Casablanca not plausible. Does anyone complain about it. No, the story is so good you don't look at logic.

Could a doctor from the U.S.A. come to Paris because he was kicked out of a hospital for drinking and decided to get out of the country for awhile and end up in a bar in Paris where someone has a heart attack?

Is it plausible that someone can fly like Superman? 

That's not plausible, at least for now.

While writers do not like readers because of the control they have over a writer's screenplay, readers don't always like us. A lot of them are envious because they are closet writers. It is a mutual non-admiration club.

I think the majority of readers give their producers want they want; that's why we see the same kind of movies over and over again, rom-coms (romantic comedies) and superheroes. 

Am I just grumpy, does it change anything... 

Part 2: Monday  The Black List

Monday, January 27, 2014

No more excuses...

And I mean it. Really.

Starting today I start on a project. Any project. Anything that strikes the muse, as they say.

But maybe I should take out the garbage. That's at least 5 minutes. Maybe I can find some other chore that takes longer.

The sun outside is shining early morning bright. It rained a little last night but as most of the time, it's gone by sunrise.

And this is how I spend Monday mornings, trying to figure out if I should start a project, finish a project or come up with a new project. Someone asked me what I do every day.

I look for work.

 As always I have legitimate projects to work on with the hope someone will buy one of them. But January is over in a few days and February is a fast month. You can see the previous blog to see what I'm playing around with.

This week, my Alberta producer will finish a new budget for Emperor of Mars, something around $1.6 million. Fifteen years ago the budget would have been $3.5 million but those days are gone. As I've said before, around 2005, TV movies, which I did most of my work in, started to disappear. Reality shows started in the form of Survivors.

And it took off. And at a lot cheaper prices.

And it became a buyer's market. Wherein Hallmark of Lifetime would have paid $3 million and more, they now pay around $350,000. 

Which is about 90% less.

Which means that producers have to scrounge around for money from anywhere, which means foreign countries, which means Canada and Great Britain, as most foreign language countries don't want our hundreds of Christmas movies.

And what about the crew?

You still need a sizeable crew to make a TV movie and larger for a studio-based movie.  How can a producer make a movie at 90% less cost?

They used to shoot TV movies in 4 weeks. 

Now they shoot them in 12 days. My Christmas story was made in 12 days. 

What does this mean?

You need to shoot and run. You can't do too many "over the shoulders" shots, and keep the cast small and fewer locations. 

And they can do it. 

But the only way to really make money is to be a producer like Larry Levinson, who makes 10 or 20 at a time. This way the company can get a cheaper rate for labor if the crews are guaranteed a year's steady work.

So what's the worst thing for writers;

We're being made minimum fees rather than fees our agents say we should have. There's always the privileged, writers who always work, but most of us trudge along and create our little projects that we hope someday will be bought.

And the funny thing is, some of them do get bought.

Friday, January 24, 2014

This and that

A little boy's postcard.

I've spend pretty much doing a lot of nothing, having handed in the screenplay I was assigned for, the one for the actor. He liked it alot and we even came up with a great title, which I would love to share but not until the screenplay is registered.

I don't usually register my screenplays, but sometimes, if you think you have something really unique, it's best to do that.

I know everyone says "they're gonna steal your idea", but in the last 23 years I've lived here nobody's stolen any ideas from me. And I pass around my screenplays to anyone who'll take it. 

Hell, I'll stand on a streetcorner and hand out the damn things.

Some writers I know, and don't really give a damn about, always say they never show their spec scripts to anybody except the big guys.

Well, the big guys don't give a damn and if you don't show your screenplay to a lot of people, you just might not get it read.

And never get it made. 

The last week of January is always the time I try to get something going. I usually get at least two or three deals by now, of which they will mysteriously fall away within a month or two.

There is the possibility I might get an actual writing assignment for a story that's just been published but it's not certain so I don't hold my breath.

But there's always the bear.

Yes, Gentle Ben, that bear movie that some of you cringe at, but the one who consistently brings me a few bucks now and then. Usually around $500-600 a year, sometimes more, in residuals. That money for free as I always say.

In fact I'm thinking of doing another, hell, the bear is ready for a new version. So towards this I'm finding out who has the copyright and then try to make a deal for an all-new Ben.

But another year is here, and another year for disappointments and great things and maybe I get to make either Ghostkeeper or Emperor of Mars. 

The great thing is, you never know.

So what's the photo above? 

I recently found it, it's a post card that I never mailed, but wherein I wanted to find out the name of a pretty actress in a movie with Hal March, a 1950's comic. So many years later, I read it and found some comfort in the fact that I was doing what I was doing years ago.

Trying to get into the movies.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Finish the old and plan the new...

As I've mentioned before, I've been working on a screenplay for an actor and a friend who's a director with the object of making the screenplay in late fall or later. The good news is that I finished the screenplay and the actor and director liked what I did.

The funny thing is that I still get nervous and anxiety-ridden when I have to finally hand over the screenplay to someone, even after all these years and dozens of screenplays, most of which were never made.

When it's more personal, as both the actor and director are friends, I get more afraid that they will be disappointed. If it were a basic writing job, I don't really get nervous, I just tell the producer I've finished and where's the check.

Obviously with friends it's a little more awkward. What if they don't like it? I don't know how other writers do it, but for me it's always nerve-wracking.

So, they liked it, at least the actor did, the director hasn't read it yet as far as I know. But the project is driven by the actor, it was his story and even though we're all committed to work on the project, I'm pleased that he likes it. It is his story, as interpreted by me. 

When it comes time to hand it over to the director to film, I hand it over. There's an old saying that the first draft is the writer's, the second draft is the producer's, the third draft is the director's and the last draft is the actors.

After that, there is a variety of people who get to have input, some directors don't like the writer on set, but I feel that they're more insecure or don't really like to share the work. As I've directed three movies as well as a hundred or so commercials, I invite everyone on the crew to offer ideas, I realize that I'm not the smartest person around and I can always learn from someone else.

I've also worked with good directors who don't mind me being around. Actually I don't really like being on set anyways, because it means two things; that they're going to ask me to fix up some scenes, or they're not going to ask me and I hang around the craft services table eating food all the time.

I'd just as soon go home.

So what do I think of the screenplay?

I think it's not bad, not great, and maybe it can use a little more input from one or more of the above-the-line people, meaning actor, director and/or producer. I've mentioned that term before, and to refresh some of you, it relates to the "creative people" on a movie or TV show. In other words, the director, the producer and the actors.

But that's another blog.

For now, I'm planning the projects I have in front of me:

1. Continue to work with the WW11 pilot who's 90 yrs old. I want to finish his book and possibly do a documentary. I'll be filming his interview next week.

2. Write a new screenplay. I'm thinking of a Mars movie.

3. I have to work more on my two books; Emperor of Mars and The Working Writer's Screenplay, both of which need more attention in order to sell more.

4. I've started to write my "bathroom book", a collection of stories from all the roadtrips I've done in the last 30 years, entitled "How To Not Get Beat-up In A Smalltown Bar."

5. A possible novelization of my screenplay Secrets of The Salmon, a drama situated along the Oregon coast. This screenplay was optioned at ABC.

If you haven't noticed, there's one thing in common with all of the above. I'm not getting paid. Actually I'm spending money on all of those projects.

But not to worry as I do have a few projects that could be made this year with two producers interested and even taking the screenplays to financiers.

At least that's what they say. 

And producers never lie... do they?

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Martian Wouldn't Say That

Over the way too many years of my being in this business, I've heard a lot of dumb things, not to mention saying dumb things myself. I thought you might like to hear some of the things producers and/or development executives say.

The title above is a book written by Leonard B. Stern and Diane L. Robison. Stern was a producer for the sitcom Get Smart.

So again, these are the comments that network execs have said:

"We cast a black actor as our lead but the way you've written the dialog you can't tell"
That's what we intended.
Okay but how will the audience know he's black." 

"We are convinced that your current episode is unwatchable. We'll have to run it in the summer."

"Considering today's current sensibilities, when you discuss euthanasia be sure you do so in a positive light."

"In this script, Beverly is described as  on top of everything. Please define "everything".

"This is the best script of the Adams Family we've read in a year. Attached are the notes for the rewrite."

"There are too many hells and damns in the first three episodes, please spread them throughout the season."

"I think you're making a mistake having so many French involved in the production of Les Miserables". 

From a script for My Favorite Martian: "Please change the dialog on page 14. A Martian wouldn't say that."

"Please disregard the notes we were unable to send you."

"Can we make the rabbi less Jewish?"

"We regret to inform you we don't have any notes?"

"I'm really excited by your new script. Those who have read it tell me it's exceptionally good."

Anyways, this gives you an idea of what you could face when you write a screenplay or script. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Globes

Every year I say I won't watch the Golden Globe awards show and somehow I change my mind. I don't really like what they do, a great example is giving an award to the movie American Hustle, for comedy or musical. It was neither. 

And I really was upset at making Jacqueline Bisset walk from what seemed like the parking lot somewhere. As my friend said, Bisset was in the old folks seats way back somewhere in the auditorium

I remember her first big movie, Two For The Road, in which she had a very small part. It's a great movie about marriage, try to find it. Then she made a movie called The Sweet Ride, about a bunch of losers living in Malibu.

Then she appeared in one of my favorite movies.

Bullit. With Steve McQueen (the original Steve McQueen), the movie most known for it's classic chase scene with a Dodge Charger and a 1968 Mustang. She wasn't in the chase, but the movie established her in Hollywood. Another must-see movie.

Now for Tina and Amy.

Tina Fey is undoubtedly one of the best comedy writers and performers of her generation and she is good at it. Amy Poehler, on the other hand, is just pretty average when you put her up against the great Saturday Night Live comedians.

The Globes are the result of a bunch of foreign critics who make their living by writing stories about movie stars and are, for the most part, a bunch of people who like to be different than Americans. 

Other dislikes; Spike Jonz getting an award, Leonardo getting an award and as much as I like Jennifer Lawrence, she really didn't do enough in American Hustle to win an award. 

There were a lot of good bits though, and it was okay but the question now is what will the oscars be... Ellen Degeneres? Hmnnn... It ain't Tina for sure.

This could be the year when the Globes outshine the Oscars.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Little bit behind

Will post later today, have a rush rewrite that has to go out asap.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Live or memorex?

The title heading refers to something most of you probably never saw. It was an ad campaign for Memorex cassette tape for both VHS video tapes and cassette audio tapes.  The commercials featured singers and inviting the viewer to guess -- was it live or on Memorex video or audio tape.

The idea, of course, is that tape is just as good as live. 

In the 70's, it was, or at least seemed to. Regardless, it was a great campaign and sold a lot of tape. But that was then...

Then came Gravity.  The movie.

In some ways it changed how movies will be made. It's not the first CGI movie, that was James Cameron's The Abyss, which was the first truly CGI experiment. And tons of movies with CGI followed, even Avatar, wherein Cameron gave us a real explosion into CGI. 

For those who don't know what CGI is, it's simply Computer Generated Images.  And it's leader was and probably will be again... James Cameron. A Canadian, by the way.

As you can imagine there are two sides to CGI. One side thinks it's fantastic and cool and hip while the other side thinks it's the end of movies as we know it. And there's some inbetween groups also.

I chose Gravity as a ground-breaking movie for a number of reasons. It's not the first full CGI movie, that was Avatar and it wasn't the best story. But what it did was to give us as close of a feeling to being 250 miles above Earth. 

Still, we all know it's not real. The movie that is. Sandra Bullock isn't really up there. What about this?

Or this --
This is real.

So what's the problem?

These scenes from John Ford's magnificent film, The Searchers, was made in 1956. A long time ago. Yet when you watch this film you can't help but regard this as truly "awesome". It takes you right into the movie and you can almost taste the dust from Monument Valley in Utah.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Avatar and Gravity, both are great movies in their own way.

It's just that they're not real.

Of course, movies are not real, we all know that. But the elements are real. The actors are real, Monument Valley is real. 

There's another movie I like to refer to called Vanishing Point, made in 1971 and a bit of a copy of Easy Rider. It's a car chase movie and far better than the Fast and Furious group of movies with a lot more action but less feeling.

Vanishing Point is about nothing in a sense. It's got a driver who races across the desert with police after him for more than nothing but a chase. Yet it's a little weird. And it has some of the best car chases ever. Without CGI. You can feel the crunch of cars in this movies because they are real.

So where am I going?

Scenery in a movie is one thing and it won't be long before actors all stand in a small room and fly to Mars or have car chases without leaving that room.

And of course, the next big thing is going to be reviving a dead actor with CGI. Brando and Mitchum and maybe John Wayne. Technology is going that way and even as I write, someone already has a CGI Marilyn Monroe just waiting to be presented to us.

She might  be perfect.

But she's not real.
And will we reach a point in which it doesn't matter?

Is it real or is it Memorex?

Monday, January 6, 2014

When are ya gonna make my damn movie!

I've mentioned that a French company is going to make my movie, Chaser, in France. The script originally is about a guy in the valley who begins to follow a mysterious panel truck where he thinks a girl is held hostage. In their interpretation, it will be mostly that story only set in France and in French.

I often get asked about the project; "when are they gonna make it"? How come it's taking so long?

The truth is that most movies never really get made quickly mostly because they have to go through the "system", meaning a script can often go through a dozen people or more. Even maybe a handful of production companies.

Take my Christmas movie, The Town That Christmas Forgot, I wrote it around 2004 and it was pushed around a few producers and finally after 3 years ended up at Hallmark. It stayed there for another 3 years wherein several directors offered to make it and at least a handful of producers also offered to make it.

But Hallmark said no to each of them. No reason, no excuses.

Then I got a phone call from a nice woman who said her company is going to make it in late summer. This was June 2010. They optioned the screenplay where I got 10% of the script fee as determined by the Writer's Guild. This is the usual way it works.

Then I forgot about it because I thought it would slowly go away.

Until I learned that they actually did make it - and forgot to pay me. It took 2 weeks to get paid with the help of the Writer's Guild.

Then there's my best script, Emperor of Mars, and it's "almost been made" 5 times!  Once with an academy award-winning director too! Twice with me directing. I think that may be a record in Hollywood. Written in 1989.

They all fell through in the financing. Money that was supposed to be there wasn't.

I contacted the French company last week and they still aren't ready to make my film. But they still are interested and hope to make it after one they just completed. And they probably will.

And it's not unusual for screenplays to languish in a stack of screenplays somewhere in an office and probably forgotten. And sometimes even stolen. I know of a producer who actually put his name on a writer's screenplay but was found out and had to pay a lot of money to the scorned writer.

So why did the Christmas movie get made? 

The nice woman was looking through a stack of screenplays and read mine. She liked it for at least one odd reason -- the teenage girl in my screenplay reminded her of her daughters.

Make sense? No. Am I happy - yes.

But that's another blog.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Ted, Jim and Brenda meet the Prime Minister

This is a photo of Banff, a small town in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. I have spent many years in and around Banff but the best year was 1972, a time where nothing could go wrong.

But first, a little history.

I keep close contact with almost all of my friends from Windsor, where I grew up from age 13 to 29 and last week-end had a chance to catch up with Ted Lindsay, who still lives in Windsor which is across the Detroit River and the now infamous city of Detroit. It's where, at 23, I got a job in the mailroom of the local TV station, CKLW-Channel 9. I had told the general manager I would be there forever but really, I was only going to spend the summer and go back to college in Detroit.

That changed the first day of work. I walked around the offices and the studio and realized this was my calling, to use a tired expression. I knew this would be my life.

I stayed in the mailroom for 2 months until an opening in the film editing department which I took and he replaced me. Editing consisted of cutting and joining commercials on film.

He also sold me my first 35mm camera, a Nikkormat, in the Nikon family. The first photo I took is of a raccoon in a cage. We became part of the newsfilm crew which consisted of a reporter, a cameraman and a soundman.  Ted was already a photographer but I was completely new to it.

 Brenda appeared around 1970 and got a job at the TV station and we married in 1971. In 1972 we took time off and went to a film course in Banff, in the heart of the Canadian
Rockies, a dream place of the arts,everything from music to writing to acting and more.

The course would last all summer and we would share a tiny cabin outside of the town when visitors might be passing through. Ted was one of them.

And that's when we met the most famous person in Canada, and quite famous in other countries as well. He was our colorful Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, in many ways our version of JFK.

We had heard Trudeau and his very young wife, Margaret were in town, that being Banff but didn't really care. Instead we decided to take one of the film cameras from my class and pretend to be filming something so that we could ride free up the famous gondola that takes people to a 6000 ft mountain. The gondola manager agreed as long as we would give him a copy of the film. Our camera had no film but we didn't say that.

When we reached the top, I noticed some of the people didn't look like tourists. In fact they looked completely out of place wearing bad suits. Security people. RCMP, you know "Mounties".

Trudeau and Maggie (as people began to call her) suddenly arrived with more mounties in cheap suits. All three of us, Ted, Brenda and I had cameras so we snapped away. Finally I decided to approach them, after all I worked in his campaign in 69 and covered him several times as part of the news crew.

You need to remember that this, in Canada, was like walking up to the President in the USA. In 1972 they weren't as paranoid as now. I approached with tea in a cup and introduced myself and who I was. Immediately Maggie spoke first, "I knew you were a professional
photographer. She began asking questions about the camera and where we were from. Brenda and Ted were nearby and were taking photos of us.

What was weird is that Maggie and I were doing most of the talking, she was around my age, maybe younger while Trudeau, I believe, was in his 40's. Here was the country's most famous person standing quietly as Maggie and I talked. Finally a mountie interceded and my little meeting with them was over. 

After they left, some tourists asked if we filmed them, which we couldn't, because we had no film. Just our still cameras and we took a lot of those. Later I gave some photos to the gondola manager with the idea of having a lifetime ride on the Gondola. Last time I saw the photos, they were still there after all these years.

That summer of 72 was one of my best summers and I still keep in touch with Ted and with Brenda, both of whom agree it was a grand time. Years later, Maggie became a photographer herself and lived a wild life for a while. She's still around and has produced a new Trudeau, Justin, who will probably be the next leader of Canada. And he's got his dad's heart and soul.